Les Leyne: Fixed link is a dream that never dies

Les Leyne mugshot genericYou can do all the negative cost-benefit studies you want on fixed links, with all your fancy spreadsheets full of reasons why such a project is impossible and will never work.

But the dream will never die. Particularly in the mind of the man who helped originate the concept.

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Dr. Pat McGeer, still working in his University of British Columbia lab at the age of 88, glanced this week at the story about the feasibility study that rejected the idea of a bridge to Gabriola Island.

“Complete nonsense,” he barked over the phone at me. “Narrow-minded, unimaginative thinking. You can quote me.”

McGeer was a Social Credit cabinet minister in the Bill Bennett government. He held the science and technology portfolio and although he had no direct responsibility for B.C. Ferries, he developed an interest in the system. He viewed it as a hugely expensive entity with major ongoing costs that only got more expensive with time. And the service at the time was occasionally threatened by labour strife, which prompted crises. As someone who despised conventional thinking, he found the problem intriguing.

He told me this week he wangled about $10,000 out of his discretionary budget and put it up for offers to anyone who could come up with a better idea. There had been visions for years before that of a fixed link to Vancouver Island. The concept was the unicorn hunt for amateur engineers and wishful thinkers.

Several engineering firms with some time on their hands indulged in some blue-sky thinking and submitted plans. McGeer said the one that shone above the others was from Joe Willis of Willis Cunliffe Tait. It was a magnificent floating bridge-tunnel crossing from Iona Island to Gabriola Island, then a bridge skipping over to the Cedar area, south of Nanaimo.

It never got any further than a desktop model. But that’s a lot further than all the other concepts. McGeer said the highways minister wouldn’t let him release it. So he filed it in the legislature library, where it eventually surfaced. The model bounced around for years after that.

Someone finally decided to throw it out, but before they did they asked McGeer if he wanted it. He obtained it and kept it in his basement for years. A fixed link has been a periodic object of fascination for years, so McGeer would trot it out for TV crews doing occasional stories on ferries, or alternatives.

Twelve years ago, the government tried to put the idea to bed once and for all with a study that concluded the costs would be astronomical, the crossing would require an engineering miracle and the tolls required to pay for it prohibitive ($180 one way).

“The costs of a fixed-link construction project may not be affordable for the provincial government to undertake for many years to come. As technology advances, the ministry would be willing to look at any proposals the private sector brings forward,” it said.

Then last year Transportation Minister Todd Stone ordered a look at just a Gabriola-to-Cedar crossing. It was released this week and concluded the economics don’t work.

Which drew McGeer’s ire.

Gabriola is the perfect route, he said. “That’s where it’s going to be built,” he said.

What about the cost worries?

“Don’t think about dollars,” he said. “Think about relative costs.”

He said if B.C. could build the Mica Dam at a time when the population was much smaller and there was less money around, it can build a fixed link.

What about the fact many people don’t want it?

“There’s always people against. There are protesters against everything. If you want to do it, just do it. This is going to be built some day. It’s just too illogical not to do it.”

A few weeks ago, someone from Science World in Vancouver asked McGeer about the model. They’re planning an exhibit to mark the 30th anniversary of Expo 86 and the opening of Science World itself.

So he gave it to them. It might wind up on display there this summer, which will provoke another round of speculation about the crossing.

The dream never dies.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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